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How to Overcome Learned Helplessness and Thrive

Can you imagine living a life of frequent pain and darkness surrounded by others who abuse you mentally or physically on a daily basis? A life where you exist deprived of warmth, respect, and love? A life, where your needs are not met, where you feel lonely and worthless?

What would you do?

Probably you could think, you would need to get out of there, run as fast as you can, and escape into a better life, a loving and respectful environment, a life with more joy and light, a life you choose.

But would you?

Theoretically, no one wants to live in misery. No one wants to be treated badly, no one would agree to a life of constant pain and fear. Yet a lot of people do exactly that. Why are they not simply escaping? Why do they choose to stay instead?

A lot of different factors can intertwine. One of them is learned helplessness.

What is learned helplessness?

You might be familiar with the concept of classical conditioning and Pavlov's dog. To make a long story short: during those famous experiments, Pavlov found out, that a dog began to salivate by certain stimuli, that promised him food. The dog has learned to associate food with a normally unrelated signal.

The Psychologist Martin Seligman took the concept of classical conditioning a step further. He developed the theory of learned helplessness in the 1960ies and 1970ies. During his research on the behavior of dogs he found out, that given certain circumstances, dogs, that were frequently receiving electrical shocks didn't try to escape.

The dogs were divided into 3 different groups. Whereas 2 of the groups learned to avoid the shocks by finding a way out of the situation, the 3rd group didn't. Those dogs have received shocks on a (for them) random basis, completely out of their control, independent of their behavior. There was a way out available, yet they were choosing to surrender to the situation and endured the shock treatment apathetically in a corner. As sad as that sounds, they have learned to have no control over good or bad and they just gave in to whatever happens.

How can this translate into human behavior?

Have you ever heard yourself saying things like:

„ No matter how hard I try, I will always...(fill in the blank)...“

„It's the way it is, I will have to live with it.“

„Whether I do this or that, what difference does it make?“

„Apparently that's who I am, I just can't..., I am too weak...“ etc.

Situations in one's life, that seem out of one's control, and out of choice, can often cause a response that leaves one feeling helpless for a time. That seems normal to me. Not everything is easy to overcome at all times and we keep trying to find a way out in one way or the other, till we succeed. Sometimes it takes longer than other times. And that's fine as we are all the time in a process.

Some people though do not feel themselves being in change, in development, and in a process all the time, every day. They experience themselves being stuck, trapped, with no hope, no way out, and helpless.

Besides so many different factors, those people may have learned early on, that no matter, what they do, the outcome is beyond their control. Everything and everyone else is in charge of their life. They are the victim of their circumstances.

So it seemingly ends up eating less of their energy to do nothing and stay where they are instead. But the feeling of helplessness reinforces itself through hiding and avoiding. The longer you extend this passive state, the more lethargic you become, the more negative your world forms itself, the fewer chances and opportunities you can be aware of, and life scares you the more and more.

The results of a strong belief that leaves you helpless and powerless can be devastating. You can lose your confidence, self-respect, and self-esteem. You limit yourself and give responsibility into the hands of others. Only the external world can decide your happiness and fulfillment. That is what is pulling the strings of your life. You even can't imagine a life outside that box, yet. It all seems frightening, exhausting, and unknown.

That is a fertile ground for anxiety, depression, stress, and substance abuse to grow and flourish.

pulling strings

Learned helplessness can be un-learned

We are humans and we tend to think about our world. The world around us is built on our experiences and belief systems. Are we always right about the world? Can we be mistaken, too? Can it be different, then we always thought it is?

If you think, it is what it is, you can't change anything, you are powerless anyway and weak, and so you rather stay, because change is so difficult and exhausting and the outcome is unknown. You can.

You can also play a game and see if what you think is true.

  • Think of results that have surprised your usual way of thinking. Times in your life, where success has “accidentally” knocked on your door, where the outcome was something you didn't expect, where something has turned into a positive memory after all. Did your behavior have an influence in any shape or form on those outcomes? What did you do? Did you ever experience that something you have decided, had a positive outcome and feedback? Did you ever give good advice to a friend, that has helped him/her? Did you ever make someone smile or laugh? Did you ever solve a problem? How did you do that? Could something of that be useful now? Dive into your treasure room of memories.

Most people can think of at least one event in their life, be it receiving their driving license, the exams at school they have passed, someone who they have helped out, or a cake they have baked for the first time in their life, that turned out to be delicious. It can be big or small, it doesn't matter. But it shows, how your behavior can generate positive outcomes and success, how you can have the power over getting something done. You can realize, that your thoughts played tricks on you and that reality is not a dead end or a one-way street.

There are things in life that can't be controlled and things that can. Focus on the things you can control. Do something different every day. Set a goal, something you will be able to achieve. Walk the stairs instead of taking the elevator, smoke one cigarette less, give someone a compliment or a smile, take a 5 minutes time out, and be still. It can be really small, but you can learn, that you can choose and that your decision can influence your day and your way of thinking.

If you can't think of a way out, a solution to a problem – relax.

Remember those times, when you absolutely wanted to remember a certain name, number, or detail and it just didn't come out of your mouth? But you remembered it easily, suddenly, out of nowhere, when you didn't think about it anymore? It was stored in your subconscious mind the whole time and you have given it some rest. Your mind relaxed and gave the answer. So take yourself out of your mind's jail. Distract yourself, breathe, go for a walk, let it rest for a while, and trust the solution will show.

Step by step you can take responsibility for yourself and regain control over your life. Give yourself a choice, every day. Start small, give it time and patience, grow, embrace the process and the mistakes on your way, and continue to try again.

“Whether you think you can or you think you can't-

you're right.”

Henry Ford


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